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A Little Lower Than Angels

Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Bigfork Community United Methodist Church

October 7, 2018 –Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

Job is the oldest poetic Word in the Bible. At the outset, our ponderings about God made us wonder how such a loving God could permit such terrible things to happen to the creatures of the world. Why would God permit a serpent to tempt humanity…all humanity.

What we have been given here and now is so wonderful, and life is so beautiful. And on top of that, we have been given the gift of reflection on what has happened to us.

I loved the Bible study Hall Diteman had at his house every Tuesday at 5:00. Most of the guys were in their 80s and they were no longer trying to prove they had been right all along.

They were trying to understand what had happened to them.

Alone among God’s creatures we can look back generations to a time before ours. Alone, perhaps, in the universe, we can look forward to a time beyond ours. We see there are times we cannot see from here.

We see that bad things happen. Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and famine are all a part of human existence on this little rock we ride through space on…as much as… electric lights, indoor plumbing, jet travel, the moon buggy, Telstar and the Hubble telescope.

We see wonderful things and terrible things. We receive what we do not deserve…both good and bad. But we also see the arc of human progress throughout recorded history.

I attended a fraternity reunion in Bozeman last week. It wasn’t my contemporaries who showed up. I knew a few of them and they knew a few of us, but it was a room full of guys who had grown up at different times.

We went around the room and told, in the briefest outline, what had happened to us in the last 50 years. We did not see things to quibble about. We saw the arc of so many lives over time, and it was beautiful. It was all beautiful.

The freedom in our security and the security in our freedom…that’s very American in this world. We are the richest of nations.

It might be two steps forward and one step back, here and there, now and then, but that makes it a net gain of one step each day… each year…each generation. We are the most blessed of creatures, ever, but we are also the most discontent.

And our progress is founded upon our eternal discontent…our dissatisfaction with the way things are, no matter how good things might get.

Our faith, on the other hand, is based upon our belief in the eternal goodness of God…our acceptance of the way things are…no matter how bad they might get.

“Indeed, I tremble for my country,” Jefferson wrote, “when I reflect that God is just and that his justice does not sleep forever.”

The wise shall be made foolish and the foolish shall shed wisdom on their neighbors. The mighty shall be brought low and the lowly shall be lifted up.Our bulletin cover gives us a glimpse of this.

It is taken about 9 miles into a 15-mile hike and at this point spectacular vistas are all around you. You are on the top of the world.

But you had to climb from 5200 feet in elevation to about 8000 feet to get there, and you had to walk it from more than 9 miles at one end of the trail, or from more than 5 miles at the other. Either way, you have a long way to go.

But you are here, on top of the world…and there is nothing for you to do but go back down again and start over.You just need to navigate around Mount Flinsch without slipping off the trail and rolling to the bottom of the Nyack.

At the opening of our reading in Job we meet a faithful and honest man who feared God and steered away from evil. He was a man of Main Street who had no use for Easy Street. He could do better.

But one day, we read, the Adversary, the Tempter, Satan himself came before God and suggested a little game for them to play. The Adversary has been wandering throughout the earth and he has seen Job, righteous and prosperous, a model for all his fellow human beings to emulate.

He will do as much good simply because of who he is and how it has turned out for him as by any pearls of wisdom he can give to his neighbors. What he has to offer is the example of a life well lived.

But let me afflict him, the Adversary says, and he will turn against you. He should love you. Life has been good to him. Let me hurt him.

Perhaps you have known such a person, or many of them, who are both successful and humble, wise and merciful. Why is it that they should be made to suffer?

If we are good, God will love us. To say it another way, because God loves us we can afford to be good. We can see the long-term benefits of living in community, loving our neighbor, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

But there is no guarantee. No matter how careful you are…no matter how good you are…no matter how talented you are…bad things can still happen.

The question is whether you will completely lose your composure, let it get to you, and invite chaos into your own life and the lives around you. Or will you maintain your composure, see the greater truth that is around you, and lead others to a place with more love in it?

We have a choice, always. It is not what happens to you that decides the meaning of your life. It is about what you do about it. We do not question life. It questions us.

This may be what the story of Job is trying to tell us…and the people of the day in which it was written are trying to say to us today. There are theories about when that was, by the way.

The prevailing view is that it was written during the Babylonian exile. Israel, the glory in the world of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, has fallen into disgrace.

The Hebrew Bible writers struggle with why this could happen to the favored people of the one true God. How have we sinned? What have we done to deserve this dis-grace?

Enter Job, the subtlest and most faith-filled story of God’s abiding love, even as the weight of the world falls upon those God loves.

It is such an elegantly written work, full of karma and dogma worthy of a Shakespeare drama. Romeo and Juliet have everything going for them but it all ends in tragedy. On the other hand, all the odds are against Antonio and Portia in the Merchant of Venice, but it all comes out okay in the end.

What is the difference between these two stories? Romeo and Juliet feel entitled and take what they want. They are the children of nobles. They know the path is winding and the way is difficult… that the course of true love never did run smooth.

They defy their families, ignore the feud between their parents, and elope. In the end, though, they try to defy death.

Juliet takes a potion that simulates death and is placed in the family crypt. Romeo is not in on this final deception, finds her there and kills himself. Juliet awakens from her trance, finds him, and kills herself.

They lose their lives, and the feuding families lose all they have… their future…because of the anger they share with each other, their inability to talk through their problems.

This reminds me of a button I once had that said, “My dogma has been run over by my karma.” Those who will not dance with life end up dancing with death. Those who cannot talk about their problems cannot solve them.

In The Merchant, Portia and Bessanio want to be married, but Bessanio needs 3,000 ducats to be worthy of her hand. He gets his friend Antonio to guarantee payment to Shylock, who has a grievance against Antonio and would love nothing more than to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh – the security for the loan to Bessanio – in lieu of repayment of the debt.

In the climax, Shylock is forced to walk away from the money he is owed because he has conspired to kill a citizen of Venice – Antonio – for which he might otherwise be sentenced to death himself.

Portia, disguised as the judge, gives one of the most beautiful pleas ever to the angels of our better natures. She is reasoning with Shylock to accept three times what he is owed:

“The quality of mercy is not strained;/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:/

‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown….”

In Romeo, the question is what we are entitled to take. In The Merchant, it is a question of mercy and grace and what the goodness of the universe might provide.

In both, the karma runs over the dogma. There is something between the inevitable and the possible and that is the gap in which humanity rises above its animal past and becomes what Paul describes to us today as “a little lower than the angels.”

He sees it in Jesus, but Jesus sees it in us. Again this morning, Jesus beckons the lowliest of the lowly in his day – the children – dependent, powerless, at the mercy of all the others – to come to be near him.

He has just sparred with the religious authorities and embarrassed them once again by seeing through their ruse and dispatching them. The powerful are sent away and the powerless are embraced.

We need to see that we are like them – at the mercy of the powers of the universe – if we are to find a place in the kingdom.

This is the point of Job, too. Terrible things happen to him, and he is among the richest, most respected people of his day. His wife calls upon him to curse God and die…but he will not…he does not.

Today we are the richest nation in the history of the world. We are the most powerful human beings who have ever lived, and half of this country shouts at the other half to curse God and die, and the other half shouts back the same words.

We need to get away from the dogma of Romeo and Juliet and get into karma of The Merchant of Venice.We need to quit trying to take power from our neighbors and start trying to honor each other in all we do and say…as the children of Jesus’ day were compelled to do…or die.

We do not need to do this because we want to, we need to do it because we have no other choice… just as the people of Israel in Jesus’ day had no other choice. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Jesus said this as he asked the Pharisees how Satan could cast out Satan. I ask you how do we cast out Satan by emulating him? Do we not invite him into our own hearts when we do that?

I continue with Portia’s plea:

“[The king’s] sceptre shows the force of temporal power,/The attribute to awe and majesty,/Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;/But mercy is above this sceptred sway;/

It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,/It is an attribute to God himself;/And earthly power doth then show likest God’s/When mercy seasons justice.”

There is a claim on both sides that each has been wounded by the other. We all have reached our own conclusions according to our own best lights. But we need to move forward together or lose the last best hope of earth. We move toward the light or away from it.

In 100 years people will look back on this time, I hope, with empathy for all who have had to live through it. Or they may look back upon it as the final crisis that caused the American Experiment in self-government to trip over the hems of its own robes. Our generation, those alive today, get to stand at a crossroads. We can go left or right or straight ahead.

Job comes to mind. Paul, who anoints us this morning as brothers and sisters of Christ, comes to mind. Jesus inviting the little children to come to him unhindered comes to mind.

Can we find a noble way out of this ignoble dilemma? We do not banish predators by accusing each other of being predators. We do not end the pain of victims by claiming to be even more aggrieved victims ourselves.

But if we could all find the courage to return to the days when we hoped that truth and justice were the American way we may find a way out of the swamp together.

Last Tuesday I sat down with Ollie to look in his homework. We did some spelling. He had written the words in the left column in upper case. He was to write them in lower case in the right column.

I told him the tail on the ‘g’ went below the line and the tail on the ‘y’ went below the line. He told me he couldn’t think while I was talking to him.